In his work The Republic, Plato wrote an allegory about the cave. He imagined mankind to be dwelling in darkness, with only a few people who were enlightened enough to leave the darkness and enter the light. Of course, being a philosopher of no particular claim to modesty, he imagined himself to be enlightened and the vast majority of humanity to be completely in darkness. What was notable about his conception of the cave was that it helped to justify his low view of humanity (he was not much of an egalitarian, viewing mankind as possessing three natures, the highest of which was that of other philosophers) as well as justify the use of coercion in bringing people into the light.
In my father’s family farm there was a cave that had been an abandoned coal mine out of which came a small creek that joined with another small creek that came from a cow pasture that my brother and I rather immodestly named after ourselves. The coal mine, which was quite dangerous being full of water, and rather uncharted, was not a place where I went as a child. I was in enough danger as it was without exploring abandoned coal shafts. All over the Appalachians there are similar relics of scars on the earth, places where wealthy companies had raped the land, taking out the coal with the indentured labor of the local people, who were forced to be accomplices in the exploitation of their own lands. All over Appalachia, there are many limestone caves formed by the action of water under the surface. Caves that appear to be small on the outside can last many miles, impossible to be explored without massive expeditions. These caves are caves almost without limit.
Where I grew up in Florida, the same sort of limestone geology has a somewhat different effect. Given that there is so much water in the soil, caves can develop very easily underneath the soil, where the limestone rock is eaten away by the water while all appears calm on the surface. Eventually the sinkholes that develop can sink roads, bridge supports, and houses, bringing chaos without warning into the lives of families. Sometimes the sinkholes are large enough to become large karst lakes in a scarred topography full of hidden violence. The caves of Florida all too easily become springs that draw water from our aquifers or lakes that take up water from the frequent summer rainstorms. Few people explore them; the waters are too cold and it is too hard to manage.
Let us discuss the aspect of caves being limitless for a little bit. In mathematics, there are several different types of infinity. There is one type of infinity that goes on higher and higher in counting. There is another kind of infinity that is in the small, in the gradations that go on without limit. And those are simply the rational numbers. Irrational numbers repeat the same pattern over again over again without ceasing (which sounds like some people I know, myself included), while some numbers, transcendental numbers (most notably pi and Euler’s constant) do not even have any discernible patterns as they wind their way into infinity. In mathematics, being limitless is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a complicated thing.
In the heathen religions of the ancient near east, caves were thought to be a place where portals could be made between civil rulers and priests and the supposed spirits of the underworld. To open those portals infants and small children would be sacrificed to barbaric false gods and burned into cinders and ashes. Some religious theorists have commented at length about the depths of the underworld that were important to ancient religious systems. The deep things of Satan are even an important aspect of the religious systems of the heathen competitors of New Testament religion. By and large, the Bible takes an extremely dim view of caves and an exploration into the underworld through magical means or child sacrifice. We tend to sacrifice children profligately without any sort of magical aims, which may even be more debased than the horrors of heathen religion that we abhor so passionately.
The psychologist Sigmund Freud had a similar mindset to the heathen religions of old when it came to the values and insight of underworld cave explorations. For a psychoanalyst, the most important aspects of the personality are those dark and cavernous places beneath the surface, full of darkness and suffering. By plumbing the savage depths of the mind, the analyst would try to analyze dark lusts as well as death wishes and other phantasmagorias full of dark and melancholy importance. Such dark places, for the psychoanalyst, are portals into the human past as well as the early childhood of every human being, where the dark truths of our existence supposedly lie.
Even nowadays, some explorations of caverns go horribly awry. I remember a few years ago hearing the story of a man who explored a cave alone in the Southwestern United States, a scar on the earth that was very narrow but impossibly deep, and found himself trapped with no help. Facing death, if he remained trapped, the brave but foolish spelunker cut off his own arm, bandaged the wound, and walked his way to eventual safety. He was a brave and very courageous man, but immensely foolish. Sometimes we all have to face some losses as a result of our folly, and for going alone rather than seeking others who can help us when we stumble. He would have been better advised to have had equally brave and intrepid friends who could all look out for each other.
As I laid awake this morning before getting ready for work, I pondered the limitless caverns of my own life. Like the dark caves of my life and explorations, I too am a cave without limit, one that has perils for the unwary and naive. That said, the darkest caverns of my life, and those dark truths that cause me the most trouble and anxiety, are often my limitless but intensely frustrated appetite for gentle affection and love. Finding a way for those longings and needs to be met in an appropriate matter that does not cause myself or others a lot of trouble is a very difficult matter. And yet I ponder these matters, knowing that given who I am, and given the circumstances I find myself in, some sort of solutions would be very important to find, not only for myself but for others as well. After all, we all exist in the context of our own experiences, and have to deal with the repercussions of our own lives and choices.